Buried treasure: white asparagus
In Germany and the Netherlands, green asparagus plays second fiddle to the white kind.
In Germany, white asparagus is a beloved culinary first crocus, its annual springtime arrival a cause for national rejoicing. In asparagus season – traditionally from late April to the end of June – most Germans will eat Spargel at least once a day, and restaurants serve it in many delicious forms – from soup to dessert.Skip to next paragraph
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During asparagus season, Spargelzeit, more than 70,000 tons of asparagus are consumed, virtually all of it white and most locally grown. Asparagus is cultivated in a number of places around the country, including Lower Saxony and Bavaria. But the general consensus is that the finest white asparagus comes from an area in Baden-Württemberg between Heidelberg and Mannheim known as the Asparagus Triangle, and centered on the aristocratic old town of Schwetzingen, which calls itself the Asparagus Capital of the World.
The soil in the area is what makes the difference. Light and sandy, it's ideal for mounding over asparagus beds to protect growing plants from direct exposure to the sun, which is what produces the chlorophyll that turns asparagus green. Green and white asparagus are genetically the same plant, but the white kind has a distinctive taste much appreciated by asparagus gourmets.
"This is absolutely the best asparagus; there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world," says Hans Rockenwagner, a German-born and trained chef who now lives in Los Angeles. "Smooth and buttery with a deep, rich flavor, it's a real delicacy." White asparagus also has cultural significance, he adds. "Germans love the fact that this is their vegetable."
Asparagus has been cultivated in Schwetzingen for more than three centuries, dating back to when it was known as "the royal vegetable" and was a luxury only aristocrats such as princes could afford.
During the annual Spargelzeit today, what draws many visitors to the town is the opportunity to buy their favorite vegetable fresh from one of the many farm stands in Schlossplatz, the market square in front of the main gate of the castle.
Market squares in Germany are often adorned with bronze statues, usually of a famous local son, a military hero, or some former ruler. However, Schwetzingen's statue is unique. Called Die Spargelfrau (The Asparagus Woman), it depicts a typical farm wife standing behind a stall covered with asparagus.
German asparagus lovers are choosy and will often go from seller to seller in the market, searching for perfect spears – those that are pure white from stalk to tip. Ideally, white asparagus should also be round and plump – about an inch in diameter – and therefore easy to peel.
Unlike green asparagus, white asparagus always has to be peeled thoroughly to remove all the skin, otherwise it will be stringy when cooked. Most German families own a swivel vegetable peeler and also a deep pot in which the asparagus is cooked, tied in a bundle with the tips up and out of the water so they will be steamed rather than boiled.